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How Big Was My Rally
October 30, 2002
The Plaid Adder

To read media coverage of the 10/26 anti-war protests, you'd think there were seven of them taking place simultaneously in D.C. alone, some much better-attended than others. Estimates swing widely from 200,000 to "hundreds." The truth is that nobody really knows how many people were there. But here's something I learned in Washington, D.C. on October 26: standing up matters more than being counted.

First, let's clear this up for anyone who was still wondering: the D.C. crowd was huge. I don't know exactly how huge; all I know is that after about noon, whenever I looked around at the crowd, I couldn't see the end of it. We were near the beginning of the march; we cut out on the last block to watch the parade go by, and about 30 minutes later when we still couldn't see the end of it we stopped waiting. I don't know enough about crowds to know the difference between a hugeness of 200,000, a hugeness of 100,000, and a hugeness of 75,000. But even without this knowledge, even a novice like me can sense the hugeness in her bones, and that's what really matters - even if the media never reflects that experience. Here's why.

Benedict Anderson, one of the most influential contemporary theorists of nationalism, argued in his groundbreaking Imagined Communities that the newspaper was crucial to the invention of the modern nation-state. His theory goes like this: the experience of picking up the newspaper, and knowing that all across the country thousands of other people were picking up the same newspaper and reading the same news, was vital in allowing people to imagine themselves as part of a national community. The idea that they are part of an imagined community is foundational to most people's experience of nationality, and it's through the media - now, TV and radio and the internet as much as the newspaper - that individuals have historically connected themselves with this larger national community.

Think, for instance, about the tremendous emotional impact that the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks had on everyone in America, and how important the media were in how those of us outside the actual zones of impact experienced that. For me, anyhow, media coverage of 9/11 reminded me that no matter how disaffected I might be with my government or my President, I could not escape my imagined community; looking at those images I became an American all over again, whether I liked it or not.

What has happened as the major media outlets are more and more concentrated in the hands of a few major corporate giants is that the 'imagined community' created by the media has started to seem more and more like an Orwellian nightmare in which no sane person would want to live. The despair so many of us feel when we turn on the TV or open the New York Times has to do not just with our anger at what we see as a distortion of the 'facts,' but with our sense that we are losing our access to our imagined community. Once we no longer believe in the accuracy, objectivity, or even reality of what the media shows us, we have lost a vital link to our fellow-Americans. How can we ever know who we are as a people or as a country if we have to reject everything the media tells us? Without the newspaper, the TV, the radio, how do we know who this 'American people' we're supposed to belong to is? What can we know, except that the America imagined by our mainstream media is not a country we can or want to be part of?

That's how I felt, anyhow: increasingly isolated from this country I still belong to, exiled to an outer darkness of skepticism and dissent. Then I got on the bus. And I stood on a street with - I don't know - a huge number of other people, and all of a sudden, I had a whole new imagined community.

I don't know who most of those people were. But I know a few things about a few of them. I know one of them was a soccer mom. I know one of them had family in Iraq. I know several of them were from New York. I know one was a fireman. I know this because they had written these things on placards and were holding them up. All across Constitution Gardens and all down Constitution Avenue, people were writing their stories in magic marker on posterboard, cardboard, foam core, whatever they had bought or built or found handy, and holding them up for each other to read. We became our own newspaper, our own TV show, our own story about who and what America is. And everyone who was there could read it, no matter where they were standing. So many times the speakers up at the top of the hill looked out and said, "I wish you could see this...this is the real America." And those of us who were there felt it, even if we didn't all have as good a view as they did.

This is what marching does. There's a reason they call these things 'demonstrations.' We demonstrate for our leaders, our politicians, and yes, of course, for the cameras. But we are also demonstrating for each other. What we demonstrate for each other is that we are America. These thousands and thousands of people standing in these parks and streets - the thousands and thousands of people standing in parks and streets in cities all over the country - we're America, as much as or more than the America imagined by our media.

Are we the only America? No, of course not. But since our media will not connect us with each other - will not show us how to imagine the thousands and thousands of other Americans that share our ideas and passions and fears and hopes - then we have to find other ways to do that. And looking out over thousands and thousands of people holding their signs in the air and saying who they are and why they're standing there, today, with you, we finally understand that we are part of a different America, an America that may never be pictured on the front page, but which is not for that reason any less real.

So let the media count us however they want to. They can't take away what we learned there. And so they can't change the fact that for - I don't know - a huge number of people, America will never be the same again. And that's what really matters.

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